Richard B-Blog

Are ” human centered” methods really the best way to get to know your customers?

Photo credit: Bagolina on / CC BY

Influenced by the wave of businesses going digital, the necessity to be innovative and the return to start-up wisdom, many consulting methodologies that help businesses better take the customer’s point of view into consideration when designing their products and services have been developed in recent years. The user centric methodologies (also referred to as ” human centered ») which help create, monetize or improve customer experience, include:  UX and Interaction Design (IxD) (1980 -1990), Design Thinking (1990s), Scrum and Agile, the lean strategy process (2000s), the business model generation (Years 2010), nudge… And, more recently, GV’s (formerly, Google Ventures) Design Sprint, a hybrid of other methods, focused on speed. Stemming for the most part from an IT development culture, these methodologies with rather eccentric names, serve the interests of a variety of functions, often in cross-functional teams and at various times in the business cycle – to conceive a new service, devise a new business model, improve a digital interface, facilitate a pathway…

Unlike the “process centric” methodologies (such as Kanban or Six Sigma) or “technology centric” ones (such as Triz or C-K), these later ones are “user centric” and all start with a phase, some deeper than others, of understanding customer needs and behavior. To do this, each methodology has developed techniques to collect, organize and interpret customer data necessary for the methodology to run smoothly, starting with, for example, digital online browsing data, in-situ interviews or even journey observation. Agile study techniques are often referred to as “guerrilla” techniques compared to those of traditional studies. They are characterized by dispatching project teams directly on location to collect rapid and iterative feedback in a more empathetic way, whereas traditional methodologies send out an institution with a mandate to investigate. Quantitative experimentation logic and A/B tests are added to qualitative user observation logic.  Agile methods consider actual customer behavior in real life (often easy to observe online) to be more informative than answers to traditional study questionnaires.

Should we pit yesterday’s methodologies against today’s?

Historically, traditional market studies (so-called ad hoc) were to service advertisers rather than software developers, and their aptitude focused more on brands and customers rather than on interfaces and users.  Client ” insight » was actually first developed to understand markets, attitudes and image perception, not really to decipher individual behavior. Prompted by developers to get user feedback, these studies quickly proved to be inappropriate for IT projects because they were often long and perceived as rigid and costly. Their methodologies and output modes were also out of sync with the expectations of technical teams, oriented towards immediate action.  It’s true that, as the agile methodology prefers to interact multiple times with a few users through project teams at local cafés, market studies advocate a rigorous sampling, the neutrality of the ethnologist or the researcher and the perspective of the analysis. This difference is due primarily to their different cultural origins and missions: those of IT and digital development on the one hand, and of marketing and social sciences on the other.

Yet today, companies’ digital and marketing cultures are inexorably intertwined, creating an urgency for consolidation or even hybridization of their different approaches. Long-term on-going monitoring of trends in behavioral research, carried out by our BVA Nudge Unit convinced us of the need to accelerate the unification of these two worlds: that of the UX, ergonomics and design with that of behavioral economics, neurosciences and social psychology. All these disciplines tackle, through their own spectrum, understanding human behaviors for functional purposes.

Eventhough social scientists have already gotten on board with developing rigorous agile studies, marketing researchers aren’t yet converted to agile and user research, still convinced of their anteriority in the “consumer behavior” domain. Compartmentalization between the disciplines is surprisingly stronger in universities than in businesses.

Why encourage methodologies hybridization ?

For the BVA teams, the encounter took place during the transition to agile methodologies within our own innovation process: the group’s sociologists and ethnologists started to work on the technological issues with Scrum masters. They all discovered a universe that was new yet, in some respects, not that different. Techniques of customer behavior observation and analysis (with, for example, the use of prototypes and use scenarios), modes of cocreation of study deliverables ( with, for example, the use of graphical facilitation rather than study reports,) and team exercises leading to better ownership of results (with techniques inspired by Scrum ceremonies) would complete each-other. The adoption of this new body of know-how accelerated when our behavioral economics specialists working on Nudge worked with our model makers, prototype and UX designers on interface projects. Also, though techniques are similar (ethnographic observations, interviews, moderating workshops with Post-its, A/B tests…), they each noticed the subtle differences with respect to each of their objectives.

A hybrid of study methodologies would respond to each project with a tool tailored to its constraints. The point is not to sacrifice the phase of collecting client insights on the altar of costs and project deadlines, but to adapt the means of each phase according to functional objectives. And wether customer research is part of a larger methodological sequence (a “sprint”, an innovation process…) or depending on the focus points sought in terms of observation or analysis (an inspiration, a live debrief…), the distribution of efforts between data collection, analysis and deliverables can be allocated in very different ways. For example, agile methods generally seek to facilitate the arbitrage of a project team at the lowest cost by rapidly considering the customers’ viewpoints without the need of an in-depth report. A live debrief session should suffice, but the exercise should allow the teams to prioritize changes quickly. On the other hand, Market studies that explore wider universes of social representation, trends or brand image should provide  guidance to the marketing, the agencies and the management of the businesses. To nourish creative thinking and strategic planning sessions, the output methods need to be creative and reproducible (films, podcasts…). They should bring to life customer’s experience and create the emotional impact in client’s organizations using an engaging format.

How to create a real customer culture?

There is no doubt, agile methods help each actor in a project better understand their role from a customer perspective. They also contribute to the dissemination of a customer culture which is lacking in many organizations today. In doing so, they are positively increasing the customer knowledge already generated by the research divisions with their standard elements (segmentation, positioning, usage and attitudes and brand image research…). Research divisions can participate in this hybridization by agreeing to transmit the fundamentals of their methodological know-how and adding to it methodologies that promote the autonomy of project teams. By democratizing their knowledge, they will move from being experts to being coaches and cross-facilitators. And to make customer insight everyone’s business, they will complete their mission through training collaborators, so that this know-how survives the changeover. Because interviewing and observing customers and discerning a kind of “knowledge” from doing it is not that easy, it is important that amateurs do not fall into the trap of taking customers’ comments literally and that non-experts are advised on the principles of methodology biases. It’s also risky to reduce a consumer to a “user” or a CRM data file. To restore complexity, cultural sensibility and emotions, studies are often incited to mobilize several disciplines.

Finally, if the knowledge of each of the employees is augmented by more regular customer contact organized by research divisions, the dissemination of the projects limits the possibility of capitalization of knowledge at the corporate level. Knowledge management by research divisions will therefore be key to linking and retaining the learnings of each file, thus avoiding the need for teams to reinvent the wheel with each new project. If agile studies are a little less costly in terms of customer knowledge, the systematic mobilization of a project team on the ground remains the heaviest investment by far, deterring organizations from using this methodology for all issues.

Translated & adapted from original french version published in